LJ Best Books 2016

A jury of our peers discussed, debated, disagreed, and finally declared LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles. VISIT THE WEBSITE

Top Fall Indie Poetry: Fourteen Great Poets To Discover or Rediscover

Baker, Andrea. Each Thing Blurred Is Broken. Omnidawn. Nov. 2015. 72p. ISBN 9781632430083. pap. $17.95. POETRY
We’re all looking for transcendence, but award-winning poet Baker hints that it’s not to be. We’re grounded firmly in a world that’s obdurately there, indifferent (“the world is cruel; the world is real”), and nature itself can’t shrug off what it is (reeds in a pond “struggle to cast their form aside”). In the telling opening poem, a black finch sitting on a black branch “proposes himself as the first form,” then quails, fails, and becomes “an aspect of the branch.” But his mind is like “a birth of flies/ before the dawn,” and in that surging physicality lies holiness—an idea that (perhaps surprisingly) does come up. VERDICT Not pretty-picture poems but tough and true.

Barzio, J. Mae. The Cumulus Effect. Four Way. 2015. 84p. ISBN 9781935536642. pap. $15.95. POETRY

Snatched meditations, spare, delicate, almost evanescent, the poems in this first collection continually register a “you” to whom the speaker reaches out (“Now give me your mouth—”) yet who seemingly has been lost (“I read your absence/ like a novel”). An uneasy balance is thus struck between memory and forgetting, or wanting to forget, even as the collection moves from New York to Berlin to Saint Petersburg, reconstructing a vibrant other at odds with the murmuring verse (“And you/ were magnetic field, voltage against/ the eye of suns and bones that grated/ one against the other”). ­VERDICT As in life, what’s missing in these poems is as important as what’s there. Readers of Jean Valentine will savor.

bastardsofreaganera111715Betts, Reginald Dwayne. Bastards of the Reagan Era. Four Way. (Stahlecker Selections.) 2015. 84p. ISBN 9781935536659. pap. $15.95. POETRY

Half the poems in this arresting, tough-minded collection from Beatrice Hawley Award winner Betts (Shahid Reads His Own Palm) are titled “For the City That Nearly Broke Me,” and the elegiac tone extends to all black men in harsh America: “Many gone to grave: men awed/ by blood, lost in the black/ of all that is awful:/ think crack and aluminum.” We think a lot about drugs and guns, street fights and prison and handcuffs as Betts recalls the “black cauldron” of the Eighties and his own burdened life. As he says in the title poem, “I graduated high school numb,/ Already caged with a dead man rattling ’bout my head,” and the rattling is heard throughout. VERDICT An extraordinary portrait; read it and weep.

Dickman, Michael. Green Migraine. Copper Canyon. Nov. 2015. 98p. ISBN 9781556594519. pap. $16. POETRY

Though deer, dogs, and frogs (among other creatures) swarm through this third collection by James Laughlin Award winner Dickman (Flies), it doesn’t exactly celebrate nature, instead detailing its sheer physical presence and, indeed, grossness. Deer are “suitcases for flies,” for instance, and dogs “all stupid grinning death running around the yard.” Then there are the migraine poems, as sharply in your face as the real thing. Verdict Sometimes incantatory (there’s frequent repetition), sometimes intentionally unlovely, and sometimes truly disturbing, this smart, precisely written collection is a different kind of poetry, delivering a jangling sense of an up-close world even when it has a fabulist feel. For poetry readers who care.

Emanuel, Lynn. The Nerve of It: Poems New and Selected. Univ. of Pittsburgh. (Pitt Poetry). 2015. 120p. ISBN 9780822963691. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780822981053. POETRY

Award-winning poet Emanuel’s new collection is not exactly a “New and Selected.” Instead, she’s disassembled her four previous books, then reassembled them to create a whole new flow. It makes sense, because Emanuel is a storyteller, a scene creator, even a scene stealer in her energetic, let’s-spill-it-out style. She puts you right there: “Then, suddenly, the train pulls into the station,/ and the scenery begins to creep forward.” And she puts herself into it: “Wherever there was a street going indifferently about her business,/ I was the dog.” Elsewhere, revealing a keen and worldly eye, she wonders of a white dress, “What does it feel like to be this shroud/ on a hanger, this storm cloud.” VERDICT Propulsive reading; great even if you have her other works.

Marshall, Nate. Wild Hundreds. Univ. of Pittsburgh. 2015. 80p. ISBN 9780822963837. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9780822981084. POETRY

Verbally audacious and rhythmically intense, Marshall’s poems reconstruct history—both his (“i can’t breathe enough suburb/ to be frivolous”) and his environs (“& he still all stories & all the gaps/ & every block in the hood/ working”). Within poems and with titles (“Harold’s Chicken Shack #1,” “Harold’s Chicken Shack #86”), Marshall uses repetition like a drumbeat to pull us in; the first poem, in fact titled “repetition & repetition &”) proclaims “baby we are hundreds:/ wild until we are free.” Think of Marshall as Whitmanesque, singing his black urban America. Verdict It’s no surprise to learn that Cave Canem Fellow Marshall is also a rapper, and no surprise to learn that this evocative collection won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.

buzzinghemisphere111715Noel, Urayoán. Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico. Univ. of Arizona. 2015. 120p. ISBN 9780816531684. pap. $16.95. POETRY

“Come down and die with me” says NYU professor Noel as he opens this new collection. Then all formal hell breaks loose as he spaces taut, bunched phrases across the top of the page, strings the same words in Spanish across the bottom, and layers in abecedarian stanzas in English and Spanish. Elsewhere, poems overload the space or crawl across it, constructed in both languages; this is not, properly speaking, a bilingual edition translating en face, though it will be accessible to speakers of either language. VERDICT This collection might have seemed self-conscious or overdetermined were it not so fluid and energetic; risk takers will have great fun traveling with Noel through urban landscapes and his buzzing, burning brain.

Purpura, Lia. It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful. Penguin. (Poets). 2015. 112p. ISBN 9780143126904. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9780698183322. POETRY

“It’s not a place,/ but I am grateful to be in it,/ ….I just practice there, assemble/ some beliefs.” Purpura may have neither a place nor unshakable convictions, but as she shows in her new collection (following the Beatrice Hawley Award–winning King Baby), she’s definitely looking. In these brief, compacted poems, she spools out intellectually taut yet touchable reflections on our being in the world, on what’s real and what’s semblance (“I’m/ here but not really/ in it. I’m more/ representative/ of a person in early/ ambient fall”). VERDICT Purpura, a National Book Critics Circle finalist for her essays, is here in smartly meditative mode. Great for discussion.

Raab, Lawrence. Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts. Tupelo. 2015. 84p. ISBN 9781936797653. pap. $16.95. POETRY

A National Book Award finalist in 1993 and long-listed this year, Raab here seems like a slightly snarky uncle full of blackly witty advice (“Forget the past if you can. It’s never over./ And then it is”). The tone is conversational, even chatty and confiding, the subjects less comfortable: “Let’s say you feel someone is better off/ dead, but you don’t do anything about it./ That could be a sign of civilization.” Underneath, though, there’s muddled concern, even vulnerability. Upset by a fortune cookie, he wonders “But couldn’t she tell/ my soul had been touched and bruised?” VERDICT With identifiable scenes that Raab has twisted for fresh insight, these are accessible poems most readers will appreciate.

Rankine, Camille. Incorrect Merciful Impulses. Copper Canyon. Nov. 2015. 80p. ISBN 9781556594908. pap. $16. POETRY

incorrectmerciful111715Just a few poems into this debut collection by Rankine, recipient of a Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize, we know her doubt and dislocation. “Dear displacement/ Dear broken skin/ I am in over my head,” says the opening poem, while another proclaims, “In the city, the climate is hostile, which suits me.” Elsewhere, Rankine blows away our illusions and reminds us, “Our stone wall was built by slaves and my bones, my bones/ are paid for.” So why does this collection not feel grim? Because Rankine is such an honest writer, because there’s cool recognition here (“You swore// there would be no other apocalypse and here we are/ again”), and because her especially clear, elegant lines reveal someone with light and fight. VERDICT A poet to watch.

Spahr, Juliana. That Winter the Wolf Came. Commune Editions. 2015. 120p. ISBN 9781934639177. pap. $16. POETRY

Award-winning poet and activist Spahr recently joined with Jasper Bernes and Joshua Clover to found Commune Editions, a poetry press designed to further their political convictions; the radical press AK is distributing. In her first Commune title, Spahr links ecological and economic crisis in poems that are near-documentary (“The Brent Crude Oil Spot price is 112.11 when the police come the first time”) or list-like and consciously repetitive so that we feel the weight of a natural world at risk (“If you were a snowy plover, you’d be surface feeding/ if you were a northern pintail, you’d be continually whistling”). VERDICT Forthright and artless; for the politically engaged, even if they don’t read poetry.

Sze-Lorrain, Fiona. The Ruined Elegance. Princeton Univ. 2015. 72p. ISBN 9780691167503. $35. pap. ISBN 9780691167695. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781400873432. POETRY

A translator and zheng harpist as well as a poet (Water the Moon), Sze-Lorrain aims to “honor the invisible,” whether it’s the lost past, the “ruined elegance” of emperors and buried books and disfigured chapels, or something to hold in a contemporary world that assaults our senses, sometimes literally: readers here visit labor camps and scenes of rape and massacre even as they climb the moon’s ladder. That ladder is missing steps, stars flame out and reemerge “in astonishment/ and for no reason,” and the spill of seemingly disjointed images finally lead us to some sense of what we can know of the world: “I’ll use the fog to see white peaches.” VERDICT Not an easy poet but worth every bit of the struggle.

Teare, Brian. The Empty Form Goes All the Way. Ahsahta. 2015. 98p. ISBN 9781934103623. pap. $18. POETRY

As Lambda Award–winning and Kingsley Tufts finalist Teare explains in his preface, at the onset of a chronic illness he discovered the paintings and writings of Agnes Martin, and the austere beauty of her grid-guided art is reflected in the construction of these poems. The various spacings are elegantly balanced, with the columns of the many split-structured poems in dialog; bursts of language let us intuit rather than see his pain. Teare opens by citing “a form/ narrowed down to its final iteration,” then explains, “I am speaking/ of illness and the critical situation it reveals,” and we finally get it: art brings not relief but understanding. VERDICT Demanding and brave.

Wieners, John. Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners. Wave. 2015. 216p. ed. by Joshua Beckman & others. ISBN 9781940696188. $30; pap. ISBN 9781940696195. $22. POETRY

A Black Mountain and Beat poet and a member of the San Francisco Renaissance, Wieners (1934–2002) should be better known. We can therefore be grateful for this Selected, assembled by poet and Wave editor Beckman, CAConrad (ECODEVIANCE), and poet/scholar Robert Dewhurst. This work includes the full text of the important The Hotel Wentley Poems and offers some unpublished pieces, as well as facsimiles, notes, and collages by Wieners. “What is poetry?” asks the first line of “Music,” which ends “Intelligence or emotion? Language.” Wieners had the language, writing with a sheer and beautiful simplicity that condensed emotion to a vibrant point. ­VERDICT Important for serious poetry readers and collections capturing poetry’s history.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.